Gov. Kevin Stitt has signed a bill to remove an office tasked with investigating complaints for vulnerable people in state care from Oklahoma Human Services. 

Stitt signed the bill Thursday to move the Office of Client Advocacy to the State Health Department. The office investigates complaints of mistreatment of children in state custody and clients receiving developmental disability services. Lawmakers sent the bill to Stitt’s desk after abuse allegations at the Robert M. Greer Center in Enid.

The Greer Center treats people with developmental disabilities and behavioral health conditions. At least eight Greer staff members have been charged since November on allegations of systemic caretaker abuse of residents. 

Read more: Troubled Enid center for people with developmental disabilities went years without a state advocate on site full-time

The Office of Client Advocacy, which has dozens of investigators and supervisors, is responsible for investigating mistreatment at the Greer Center. The office was looking into abuse allegations months before they became public, but lawmakers said the office didn’t do enough to take care of the people living at the facility. 

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The advocacy office once reported directly to the director of Oklahoma Human Services, which advocates and lawmakers say made it better able to perform independent investigations. But a change under Stitt-appointee Justin Brown, who led Oklahoma Human Services from June 2019 to July 2022, moved the office under the director of adult services at the agency.

Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chair Paul Rosino, R-Oklahoma City, wrote the bill to relocate the office and hopes the change will improve the investigative process. 

“It is our duty to protect those who can’t protect themselves,” Rosino said in a press release Friday praising the governor for signing the bill. “After hearing of the torturous acts that were committed at the Greer Center, I immediately began working to put protections in place to make sure this never occurs again.” 

But some key lawmakers who focus on human services issues say the change won’t prevent abuse or expand investigations. The Health Department is already required to investigate complaints of abuse at the Greer Center. The agency investigated allegations of abuse at the Greer Center in 2021 and 2022 but didn’t find enough evidence to prove the complaints, according to state records reviewed by The Frontier

In a statement, the Health Department said the agency is “confident in its ability to execute this important function successfully.” The agency will take over the operations of the Office of Client Advocacy beginning Nov. 1. The advocacy office will reside in the agency’s existing Office of Accountability, a spokeswoman said, which reports directly to the state Commissioner of Health. 

Senate Bill 1709 also requires moving another Oklahoma Human Services office that investigates and resolves complaints involving long-term care facilities like nursing homes. The Long-Term Care Ombudsman Office will now operate under the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office.

An Oklahoma Human Services spokeswoman said the agency will work with the Health Department and the Attorney General’s office to make sure clients and families experience no service disruptions during the transition. 

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